"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home -- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. [...] Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world." -- Eleanor Roosevelt
I start with this quote, because it explains so succinctly what human rights are, or, at least, what they should be – that human rights apply to all, in every corner of the world.
Human Rights Day is celebrated every year on December 10. Today, we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed, on this date, in 1948.
The very first article of the convention states that “All human beings are born free and equal, in dignity and rights”.
So how does Malta fare? Are we all treated equally, in dignity, with all rights recognised and acknowledged?
There is no doubt that Malta has made great strides in terms of recognising human and civil rights. We have achieved much in recognising LGBTIQ rights. We have implemented the Istanbul Convention that recognises violence against women as a breach of human right. We changed our censorship laws, removing unnecessary intrusion of the state in what can and cannot be said. We are at the beginning of the process of having a Human Rights and Equality Commission Act, where the rights of the individuals living on our little island will be improved, expanded and guaranteed even further.
This is not to say that everything is perfect. There is so much more we ought to be doing when it comes to immigration and human trafficking. There much more to be done in the way the state functions in terms of independence of institutions from political interference. Some of the tragic events and many of the local scandals in recent years are testament to that.
But, where are we when it comes to women and women’s rights?
Simply put, we still have a long, long way to go.
Just recently, the UN Human Rights Committee that monitors the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights has issued a new General Comment calling upon countries to remove barriers to abortion in cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormality and where such restrictions endanger a pregnant woman’s life or health by forcing her to seek an unsafe abortion.
The comment is completely in line with Women’s Rights Foundation position paper on reproductive health and rights and states that:
"restrictions on the ability of women or girls to seek abortion must not, inter alia, jeopardize their lives, subject them to physical or mental pain or suffering which violates article 7, discriminate against them or arbitrarily interfere with their privacy. States parties must provide safe, legal and effective access to abortion where the life and health of the pregnant woman or girl is at risk, and where carrying a pregnancy to term would cause the pregnant woman or girl substantial pain or suffering, most notably where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or is not viable.’
Furthermore, the document states that:
"In addition, States parties may not regulate pregnancy or abortion in all other cases in a manner that runs contrary to their duty to ensure that women and girls do not have to undertake unsafe abortions, and they should revise their abortion laws accordingly… States parties should not introduce new barriers and should remove existing barriers that deny effective access by women and girls to safe and legal abortion, including barriers caused as a result of the exercise of conscientious objection by individual medical providers."
Needless to say, Maltese laws fly in the face of all of this.
As the law stands, at present, the rights of an embryo and/or a foetus rights are recognised by the state. This recognition creates a whole new set of rights assigned to an embryo/foetus that exist in no other context – right of use of the woman’s body, no matter the circumstances and, more importantly, no matter the consequences to woman’s health, life and wellbeing.
Bottom line, in the eyes of Maltese law, women are not fully human and therefore not deserving of the right to full bodily autonomy.
And we can speak of position of women in our society, political representation and so on, but until women in Malta have the right to decide for themselves, what can happen to their body, the same right exercised and long acknowledged by the rest of the world (except for other four countries, one being the Vatican), women in Malta will remain in the subdued and controlled position.
Then and only then we can talk about gender equality, human and civil rights in Malta as a success story.